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Remembering Joe Long as a "Moses kind of man"

Oct. 16, 2006

by Diana Garland

Joe Long drove to Killeen to counsel with soldiers and their families at Fort Hood several times a month. Before getting back into his car for the return trip to Waco, he would take a nap, just to be sure he got home safely. Not surprising given that Long was 88.

A lifelong social worker, Long told his colleagues just weeks before his death on Sept. 16, "If you ever see me faltering, and you think it is going to impact clients, let me know. Otherwise, let me work."

He retired four times, but it just never took. During World War II, he served wounded soldiers at VA hospitals when they returned to the States, retiring from the Army in 1981 as a lieutenant colonel. He was a social work practitioner for the VA in Gulfport, Miss., a mental health consultant for the City of Fort Worth, director of a family counseling center in Marshall, Texas, and director of social work with the Department of Mental Health Mental Retardation in Waco. He retired after 20 years at the Waco VA Hospital, and then returned to work at The Regis St. Elizabeth.

Born into a farming family in Porterville, Miss., Long was one of eight children. He was the only one in his family to go to college, eventually earning a doctorate in social work from Walden University in Florida. His mother insisted that he go to school rather than to stay out to pick cotton during the harvest season. On a visit back to the homestead a few years ago, he looked down and saw a penny on the ground. He picked it up and said to one of his sons, "If we had known when we were kids that there was a penny somewhere on this farm, we would have torn it up looking for that penny."

For Dr. Long it was always about the individual - an absolute insistence that each person be treated with dignity, regardless of his or her circumstances. He modeled that in little ways - like making sure that women who had lost virtually all their cognitive ability to Alzheimer's disease still had their hair styled. And he modeled it in bigger ways - his long months of investigation and negotiation with Italian government officials in order to bring a family member to Waco to visit his ailing brother in the VA Hospital.

When I first came to Waco in 1997 to establish a graduate social work program at Baylor University, Dr. Long was one of the program's first supporters and advocates. He promptly gave $1,000 in scholarship funds for every year he had been a practicing social worker -- $50,000. In the years that followed, he more than doubled that amount. This from a man of modest means who still has the first television he bought in 1961 in his home today.

Dr. Long invested more than money in the lives of social work students -- he invested his life. For more than 35 years, he supervised our students, a legacy of caring that has spread like overlapping waves into successive generations of professionals. He knew how to nurture and affirm our students' gifts, to challenge and guide them. He spent countless hours molding their lives as professionals. As one of our professors said, "When we had a student that was struggling, we called Dr. Long."

One of his students and friends, Scott Taylor, benefited from the scholarship Dr. Long provided. Now a doctoral student at Boston University, Taylor wrote of his mentor, "Joe allowed himself to be found by God, to love and to be loved by his brothers and sisters, and to offer his service to community and to his profession."

To me, he was my friend Joe. The years I have known him were marked by the devastating illness and loss of his soul mate, Marguerite, after 62 years of marriage. It was a loneliness that none of us could fill. Yet, he found the grace and vision to help build a future for social work education that he himself would never know -- what I call a Moses kind of man.

I learned many things from Joe. I learned that we can define our lives whatever may befall us, and that we don't have to be defined by the whatever. I learned how to live a life with deep joy as he chose to meet life's tragedies with determination and grace.

On the kitchen windowsill of Joe and Marguerite's home, there sits a recipe card. It has been there as long as any of their children can remember. It is a text typed on a manual typewriter, and it must have been as much a part of their daily lives as washing dishes in the kitchen sink beneath that same window. It reads:

The clock of life is wound but once

and no man has the power

to tell just when the hand will stop

on what day ¬¬- or what hour.

Now is the only time you have,

so live it with a will;

don't wait until tomorrow -

the hands may then be still.

Joe Long lived his life with a will. For him, the hand has stopped, but he lives on in the way he has shaped the lives of students he will never know but who will carry on his legacy of compassion to hurting persons.